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2 August 2010

Monday's Word


We've all written them at one time or another, but have you really thought about where the term comes from?  This is what michael Quinion* has to say in his 'World Wide Words', in answer to a question from a reader.:

"I was recently writing a short thank-you note to my hostess fora lovely weekend at her house, and thought of it as my "bread-and-butter" letter, as that's what my mother had called it when I grewup in Canada in the 1950s. I have the impression that it was the recognised phrase for such a letter that is one's plain duty as aguest to write. But why "bread and butter"? Because it's alwaysdone, as putting bread and butter on the dinner table would have ormay have been? I detest folk etymology and don't want to be guiltyof it myself. Was this phrase used in England?"

A. It has indeed been used in the UK; it still is to some extent.It turns up from time to time in print, as here in a humorous quizabout etiquette:

  After a weekend in the country, should you: a) Write   your hostess a charming "bread and butter" letter. b)
    Send a large basket of Fortnum & Mason cheese and hams.   c) Dash off a quick text before you've got to the end of   their drive, saying: "Thx 4 a gr8 w/e xxx".
    [Daily Telegraph, 16 Sep. 2008.] However, it's most definitely North American in its genesis and continues to be used there more than anywhere else."

Now I find that really interesting.  I well remember as a child, the first thing we had to do as soon as Christmas was over (sometimes even on Boxing Day) was write a letter to the numerous Aunts and Uncles and other doting relations who had been kind enough to send my sister and myself Christmas gifts. It was a chore to be got through with a sense of relief one the last letter was stacked on top of the little pile of envelopes waiting to be posted.  I wonder how many children send actual 'thank you' letters these days?  I know my own nephews and nieces were more likely to pick up the telephone, and certainly in recent years emails or texts are much more likely - if it's thought necessary to send a 'thank you' at all. I remember after I got married, I wrote to everyone one who had been kind enough to send a wedding gift and was a little surprised to receive a nice letter back from a distant relative saying how pleased they'd been to receive a thank you letter and had never had one for a wedding gift before! Cynics will shake their heads and remark that it's all part of today's 'have it all' culture and there's no respect or courtesy any more. .Perhaps they're right.  The way I look at it, if someone's taken the time and trouble to go out and look for a gift for you the least one can do is send a polite note of thanks. What do you think?  Are 'bread and butter' letters a thing of the past, or are they still alive and well, albeit in different formats?

*World Wide Words is copyright (c) Michael Quinion 2010. All rights reserved. The Words Web site is at http://www.worldwidewds.
Reproduced with permission